The Counterfeiters

March, 2008, Drama

Directed by:Stefan Ruzowitzky

Starring:Karl Markovics, August Diehl, and Devid Striesow

Winner of the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film of 2007, this Austrian film by screenwriter/director Stefan Ruzowitzky chronicles one of the more bizarre uses to which the time and talents of Nazi Germany’s concentration camp-inmates were put during their hellish confinement in WWII. Based on the book “The Devil’s Workshop”, Counterfeiters traces the fortunes of Salomon “Salli” Sorowitsch, (Karl Markovics) a notorious counterfeiter of Russian/Jewish origin living in Berlin who was arrested in 1936 and sent to the Mauthausen concentration camp for forging passports. When Friedrich Herzog, (David Striesow) the arresting officer in Salli’s case, is placed in charge of Nazi efforts to forge Allied currencies at the start of WW II, he arranges for Sorowitsch’s transfer to the relative safety of a specially created unit at Sachsenhausen, an upgraded concentration camp where Salli is charged with overseeing the effort to mass-produce bogus British and American currencies. Given ample time and resources, the primarily Jewish members of Salli’s team succeed in creating fake British pounds of remarkably high quality. 

But they also set about sabotaging their own work, trying to balance personal safety against the moral implications of aiding the Nazi’s ability to purchase desperately-needed material and supplies with which to continue the war. As evidence of the Allies successful march on Berlin seeps into the camp, Strumbannfuhrer Herzog engages in cat and mouse games with the wily Sorowitsch, alternatively bribing and threatening him in order to meet the Nazi regime’s insatiable appetite for the financial resources necessary to prolong the war. By its cataclysmic end, Salli’s team’s had succeeded in producing forged British currencies worth 4 times England’s then existing foreign reserves while denying their captors a successful duplication of   American dollars. 

The director and cinematographer Benedict Neuenfels present this story in scruffy images that are shot ever-so-slightly slightly out of focus, bathing the production with a grimy, authentic look. Markovics, an Austrian stage actor with an impressive resume in European television, delivers a standout performance as the duplicitous Salli, balancing his cynical desire for personal advantage with a stubborn sense of responsibility for those forced to work under his direction in what is essentially a criminal enterprise. His instinct for self-preservation contrasts sharply with that of idealist Adolph


Burger, (played by the German actor August Diehl) the expert printer assigned to the unit and the man who wrote the book upon which the film is based. Burger sees outright insurrection as a matter of moral obligation; Salli’s instincts venture no further into ethical niceties than saving his own neck and if possible, the necks of those immediately working with him. Wearing a permanent five o’clock shadow and a perpetual sneer for those in authority, Markovics offers the visual embodiment of Jewish tenacity in the face of unspeakable brutality, making the profoundly felonious Sorowitsch compare favorably with another duplicitous concentration-camp hero, the morally compromised Oscar Schindler. 

While Burger’s first-hand participation in the events which form the basis of this film lend its story impeccable authenticity, there is little character development in the script beyond the author’s moral superiority, Salli’s hard-nosed pragmatism and Herzog’s unctuous venality. While Striesow works hard to convey some depth to his camp commander’s depravity, he fails to deliver anything that hasn’t been seen on the screen in numerous previous depictions of what Hanna Ardent so famously described as ‘the banality of evil.” 

If there is a major flaw in Counterfeiters, it lies in the sequence which book-end its storyline; appearantly eager to convey a sense of the universality of the persevering strength which so many European Jews brought to the unspeakable events of the Holocaust, (and struggling perhaps to pad out a storyline which runs less than 100 minutes) Rutzowitzky opens and closes his film with Salli’s post-war fling at the gaming tables of Monte Carlo, proving only that even the best of Europe’s filmmakers isn’t above injecting some bogus, Hollywood-style improbability to an otherwise daunting example of the human capacity for the grim but defiant will to live.

The verdict? A fascinating story, told with granite-like hardness save for its cheesy pandering to the audience at the movie’s beginning and end. Skip that schmaltz and concentrate on the lead’s brilliant ability to visually convey the doggedness which has served the Jewish people throughout millennia of prejudice.  

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